This one….was an adventure. We should have known that something would happen here. We had stopped at a couple Autozones on the way to this park for various things… and where else better for things to go wrong than a remote desert?
Anyway, we arrived in the late afternoon to Big Bend National Park in the southwest part of Texas after a super fun drive. This park has five Visitor Centers, but since it’s the slow season for them, only a few are open. The two main hubs though are Panther Junction and Chisos Basin Visitor Centers. We stopped in Panther Junction to pick up our map, the very helpful Park Newspaper, and my Junior Ranger booklet.
We had a couple hours before sunset, so we decided to hike the Grapevine Hills trail to see the popular Balanced Rock. The road here, like many of the roads at this park, are a tough gravel road. If you visit this park, definitely be aware of what your vehicle can manage (this is an ironic statement for what’s about to come for Mike and me). This was a pretty easy hike, and I definitely recommend it to others – it’s a great place for pictures, fun to climb on some rocks, and a good introduction to the desert landscape. I also saw lots of adorable jackrabbits and roadrunners.
Per the rangers suggestion, we drove to the Chisos Basin for the sunset at Window View. This is definitely the most popular place to watch the sunset, and with good reason. There is a 5 mile Window trail and a shorter .3 mile Window View trail that I believe was added just for the sunsets. Mike and I accidentally started down the long trail, but it worked out better than going to the Window View trail! We were about 100 feet in front/below the crowd of people at the overlook on this beautiful, secluded rock we had found to sit on and watched the gorgeous sunset together with a whiskey ho hum.
There are campgrounds to stay at within the park, but backcountry camping is even better! For only $12, you can reserve various sites throughout the park for up to 14 days. That’s less than $1 a day! They are large gravel areas, with a bear box for your food, and are completely isolated. This night we stayed at Nugent Mountain which was nestled into the mountains, making it much cooler than it had been all day. This camping was incredible – the lack of light pollution make the stars come alive and the wilderness and nature sounds don’t have to compete with anything else to be heard.
We woke up the next morning and started driving down the popular 30 mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook for sunrise. Mike is verrrrry in tune with all the sounds of the van. I had been joking that he was a van-hypochondriac; hearing one off sound and then diagnosing the van with 18 different problems. He and the old struggle bus got the last laugh though. A few miles in, we were stuck. I’m still not sure what was wrong – that’s a question for Mike. But we had no cell service, and the first 30 cars that came along, drove right by us – despite it clearly looking like we needed help with the van hood opened and Mike tinkering in and under the van. Luckily a decent family finally stopped to ask if we needed help and they had service. We called AAA, who connected us with the local towing company. With all my car issues this year, I had actually used all my tows for the year… so lets just say this was an expensive uh-oh.
Sixto’s Wrecker Service towed us about 80 miles to the nearest town with actual businesses – Alpine, Texas – where we spent the afternoon drinking at Ole Crystal Bar, pouting about our bad luck. We met some great people there though, Luca was allowed in, and it was super cheap.
Fast forward a couple days – we’re back on the road to Big Bend! This time, we drove immediately to the far east side of the park to Rio Grande Village where it was recommended that we watch the sunset. It was beautiful, for sure, but if you only have one sunset at this park, I would pick the Window View at Chisos Basin. After the sunrise, we hiked the Hot Springs Trail. It was a lush oasis area compared to the rest of the park – a beautiful trail for sure. I had read about getting in these Hot Springs here and star gazing. However, no one else was there, it was buggy, and it’s covered in algae which made it look like no one had been in it for a long time. Basically, we were babies and decided not to get in – just in case. With our luck, we were pretty certain we would get some sort of deadly rash or virus.
So we decided to attempt the drive again to Santa Elena Canyon. Fun fact, it takes over two hours to drive from the far east Rio Grande part of the park to this west section of the park. We camped on Old Maverick Road, another gravel road with camp sites.
We woke up early and did the Santa Elena Canyon trail to watch the sunrise. It was gorgeous and we had so much fun yelling for echoes in the canyon. Mike snuck into Mexico for a minute. After that we took our time driving back on the Maxwell Ross road and stopped at the overlooks along the way. There are a lot more trails to be done, but it wasn’t meant to be for us. Dogs aren’t allowed on any trails here, and it was a solid 100 degrees about an hour after sunrise.
So, we back to Panther Junction Visitor Center, I did the easy Panther Pass trail, which I recommend to learn about all the desert plants and I earned my next junior ranger badge from Ranger Tracey. She’s from Ohio and wanted to travel with her husband. They ended up in New Zealand and she got a job with the National Parks there! She knew immediately she had found what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She’s been at Big Bend the last two years and just became a full time permanent ranger! Congratulations, Ranger Tracey!